I come home as I have done several times in the past year, traveling on three buses. The first bus is large, air-conditioned, fast, and comfortable. People on it pay little attention to each other. They look out at the highway traffic, which the bus negotiates with superior ease. We travel west then north from the city, and after fifty miles or so reach a large, prosperous market and manufacturing town. Here with those passengers who are going in my direction, I switch to a smaller bus. It is already fairly full of people whose journey home starts in this town—farmers too old to drive any more, and farmers’ wives of all ages; nursing students and agricultural college students going home for the weekend; children being transferred between parents and grandparents. This is an area with a heavy population of German and Dutch settlers, and some of the older people are speaking in one or another of those languages. On this leg of the trip you may see the bus stop to deliver a basket or a parcel to somebody waiting at a farm gate.
* * * *
The thirty-mile trip to the town where the last change is made takes as long, or longer, than the fifty-mile lap from the city. By the time we reach that town thelarge good-humored descendants of Germans, and the more recent Dutch, have all got off, the evening has grown darker and chillier and the farms less tended and rolling. I walk across the road with one or two survivors from the first bus, two or three from the second—here we smile at each other, acknowledging a comradeship or even a similarity that would not have been apparent to us in the places we started from. We climb on to the small bus waiting in front of a gas station. No bus depot here.
This is an old school bus, with very uncomfortable seats which cannot be adjusted in any way, and windows cut by horizontal metal frames. That makes it necessary to slump down or to sit up very straight and crane your neck, in order to get an unobstructed view—I find this irritating, because the countryside here is what I most want to see—the reddening fall woods and the dry fields of stubble and the cows crowding the barn porches. Such unremarkable scenes, in this part of the country, are what I have always thought would be the last thing I would care to see in my life.
And it does strike me that this might turn out to be true, and sooner than I had planned, as the bus is driven at what seems a reckless speed, bouncing and swerving, over the remaining twenty miles of roughly paved road.
This is great country for accidents. Boys too young to have a license will come to grief driving at ninety miles an hour over gravel roads with blind hills. Celebrating drivers will roar through villages late at night without their lights on, and most grown males seem to have survived at least one smashed telephone pole and one roll in the ditch.
* * * *
My father and stepmother may tell me of these casualties when I get home. My father simply speaks of a terrible accident. My stepmother takes it further. Decapitation, a steering-wheel stove into the chest, the bottle somebody was drinking from pulping the face.
“Idiots,” I say shortly. It’s not just that I have no sympathy with the gravel-runners, the blind drunks. It’s that I think this conversation, my stepmother’s expansion and relish, may be embarrassing my father. Later I’ll understand that this probably isn’t so.
“That’s the very word for them,” says my stepmother. “Idiots. They have nobody but themself to blame.”
I sit with my father and my stepmother—whose name is Irlma—at the kitchen table, drinking whiskey. Their dog, Charlie, lies at Irlma’s feet, my father pours rye into three juice glasses, until they are about three-quarters full, then fills them up with water. While my mother was alive there was never a bottle of liquor in this house, or even a bottle of beer or wine. She had made my father promise, before they were married, that he would never take a drink. This was not because she had suffered from men’s drinking, in her own home—it was just the promise that many self-respecting women required, before they would bestow themselves on a man, in those days.
The wooden kitchen table that we always ate from, and the chairs we sat on, have been taken to the barn. The chairs did not match. They were very old, and a couple of them were supposed to have come from what was called the chair factory—it was probably just a workshop—at Sunshine, a village that had passed out of existence by the end of the nineteenth century. My father is ready to sell them for next to nothing, or give them away, if anybody wants them. He can never understand an admiration for what he calls old junk, and thinks that people who profess it are being pretentious. He and Irlma have bought a new table with a plastic surface that looks something like wood and will not mark, and four chairs with plastic-covered cushions that have a pattern of yellow flowers and are, to tell the truth, much more comfortable than the old wooden chairs to sit on.
Now that I am living only a hundred miles away I come home every couple of months or so. Before this, for a long time, I lived more than a thousand miles away and would go for years without seeing this house. I thought of it then as a place I might never see again and I was greatly moved by the memory of it. I would walk through its rooms in my mind. All those rooms are small, and as is usual in old farmhouses, they are not designed to take advantage of the out-of-doors but, if possible, to ignore it. People may not have wanted to spend their time of rest or shelter looking out at the fields they had to work in, or at the snowdrifts they had to shovel their way through in order to feed their stock. People who openly admired nature—or who even went so far as to use that word, Nature—were often taken to be slightly soft in the head.
In my mind, when I was far away, I would also see the kitchen ceiling made of narrow, smoke-stained, tongue-in-groove boards, and the frame of the kitchen window gnawed by some dog that had been locked in, before my time. The wallpaper was palely splotched by a leaking chimney, and the linoleum was repainted by my mother every spring, as long as she was able. She painted it a dark color—brown or green or navy—then, using a sponge, she made a design on it, with bright speckles of yellow or red.
That ceiling is hidden now behind squares of white tiles, and a new metal window-frame has replaced the gnawed wooden one. The window-glass is new as well, and doesn’t contribute any odd whorls or waves to what there is to see through it. And what there is to see, anyway, is not the bush of golden glow that was seldom cut back and that covered a both bottom panes, or the orchard with the scabby-apple trees and the two pear trees that never bore much fruit, being too far north. There is now only a long, grey, windowless turkey barn and a turkey yard, for which my father sold off a strip of land.
The front rooms have been re-papered—a white paper with a cheerful but formal red embossed design—and a wall-to-wall moss-green carpeting has been put down. And because my father and Irlma both grew up and lived through part of their adult lives in houses lit by coal-oil lamps, there is light everywhere—ceiling lights and plug-in lights, long blazing tubes and hundred-watt bulbs.
Even the outside of the house, the red brick whose crumbling mortar was particularly penetrable by an east wind, is going to be covered up with white metal siding. My father is thinking of putting it on himself. So it seems that this peculiar house—the kitchen part of it built in the 1860s—can be dissolved, in a way, and lost, inside an ordinary comfortable house of the present time.
I do not lament this loss as I would once have done. I do say that the red brick has a beautiful, soft color, and that I’ve heard of people (city people) paying a big price for just such old bricks, but I say this mostly because I think my father expects it. I am now a city person, in his eyes, and when was I ever practical? (This is not accounted such a fault as it used to be, because I have made my way, against expectations, among people who are probably as impractical as myself.) And he is pleased to explain again about the east wind and the cost of fuel and the difficulty of repairs. I know that he speaks the truth, and I know that the house being lost was not a fine or handsome one in any way. A poor man’s house, always, with the stairs going up between walls, and bedrooms opening out of one another. A house where people have lived close to the bone for over a hundred years. So if my father and Irlma wish to be comfortable, combining their old-age pensions which make them richer than they’ve ever been in their lives, if they wish to be (they use this word without quotation marks, quite simply and positively) modern, who am I to complain about the loss of some rosy bricks, a crumbling wall?
But it’s also true that in a way my father wants some objections, some foolishness from me. And I feel obliged to hide from him the fact that the house does not mean as much to me as it once did and that it really does not matter to me now how he changes it.
“I know how you love this place,” he says to me, apologetically yet with satisfaction. And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon.
I don’t go into the front room now, to rummage in the piano bench for old photographs and sheet music. I don’t go looking for my old high-school texts, my Latin poetry, Maria Chapdelaine. Or for the bestsellers of some year in the 1940s when my mother belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club—a great year for novels about the wives of Henry VIII, and for three-name women writers, and understanding books about the Soviet Union. I don’t open the classics bound in limp imitation leather, bought by my mother before she was married, just to see her maiden name written in graceful, conventional schoolteacher’s handwriting on the marbled endpaper, after the publisher’s pledge.
Everyman, I will go with thee, in thy most need be by thy side.
Reminders of my mother in this house are not so easy to locate, although she dominated it for so long with what seemed to us her embarrassing ambitions, and then with her just as embarrassing though justified complaints. The disease she had was so little known then, and so bizarre in its effects, that it did seem to be just the sort of thing she might have contrived, out of perversity and her true need for attention, for bigger dimensions in her life. Attention that her family came to give her out of necessity, not quite grudgingly, but so routinely that it seemed—it sometimes was—cold, impatient, untender. Never enough for her, never enough.
The books that used to lie under beds and on tables all over the house have been corralled by Irlma, chased and squeezed into this front room bookcase, glass doors shut upon them. My father, loyal to his wife, reports that he hardly reads at all any more, he has too much to do. (Though he does like to look at the Historical Atlas that I sent him.) Irlma doesn’t care for the sight of people reading because it is not sociable and at the end of it all what has been accomplished? She thinks people are better off playing cards, or making things. Men can do woodworking, women can quilt and hook rugs or crochet or do embroidery. There is always plenty to do.
“It’ll be a hard job but I’ll be glad in the end if I undertake it,” my father says. He is talking about putting the siding on the house. “I need a job like that to get me back to the shape I was in a couple of years ago.”
About fifteen months ago he had a serious heart attack.
Irlma puts out coffee mugs, a plate of soda crackers and graham crackers, cheese and butter, bran muffins, baking-powder biscuits, squares of spice cake with boiled icing.
“It’s not a lot,” she says “I’m getting lazy in my old age.” I say that will never happen, she’ll never get lazy.
“The cake’s even a mix, I’m shamed to tell you— Next thing you know it’ll be boughten.”
“It’s good,” I say. “Some mixes are really good.”
“That’s a fact,” says Irlma.
* * * *
Harry Crofton—who works part-time at the turkey barn where my father used to work—drops in at dinnertime the next day and after some necessary and expected protests is persuaded to stay. Dinnertime is at noon. We are having round steak pounded and floured and cooked in the oven, mashed potatoes with gravy, boiled parsnips, cabbage salad, biscuits, raisin cookies, crab-apple preserves, pumpkin pie with marshmallow topping. Also bread and butter, various relishes, instant coffee, tea.
Harry passes on the message that Joe Thoms, who lives up the river in a trailer, with no telephone, would be obliged if my father would drop by with a sack of potatoes. He would pay for them, of course. He would come and pick them up if he could, but he can’t.
“Bet he can’t,” says Irlma.
My father covers this taunt by saying to me, “He’s next thing to blind, these days.”
“Barely find his way to the liquor store,” Harry says.
“He could find his the way there by his nose,” Irlma says. And repeats herself, with relish, as she often does. “Find his way there by his nose!”
Irlma is a stout and rosy woman, with tinted butterscotch curls, brown eyes in which there is still a sparkle, a look of emotional readiness, of being always on the brink of hilarity. Or on the brink of impatience flaring into outrage. She likes to make people laugh, and to laugh herself. At other times she will put her hands on her hips and thrust her head forward and make some harsh statement, as if she hoped to provoke a fight. She connects this behavior with being Irish and with being born on a moving train.
“I’m Irish, you know. I’m fighting Irish. And I was born on a kicking horse. Kicking Horse Railway, what do you think of that? Born that way you know how to stick up for yourself, and that’s a fact.” Then, whether her listeners reply in kind or shrink back in disconcerted silence, she will throw out a challenging laugh.
She says to Harry, “Joe still got that Peggy woman living with him?”
I don’t know who Peggy is, so I ask,
“Don’t you mind Peggy?” Harry says reproachfully. And to Irlma, “You bet he has.”
Harry used to work for us when my father had the fox farm and I was a little girl. He gave me licorice whips, out of the fuzzy depths of his pockets, and tried to teach me how to drive the truck and tickled me up to the elastic of my bloomers.
“Peggy Goring?” he says. “Her and her brothers used to live up by the tracks this side of the Canada Packers? Part Indian. Hugh and Bud Goring. Hugh used to work at the creamery?”
“Bud was the caretaker at the town hall,” my father puts in.
“You mind them now?” says Irlma with a slight sharpness. Forgetting local names and facts can be seen as deliberate, unmannerly.
I say that I do, though I don’t, really.
“Hugh went off and he never come back,” she says. “So Bud shut the house up. He just lives in the one back room of it. He’s got the pension now but he’s too cheap to heat the whole house all the same.”
“Got a little queer,” my father says. “Like the rest of us.”
“So Peggy?” says Harry, who knows and always has known every story, rumor, disgrace, and possible paternity within many miles, “Peggy used to be going around with Joe? Years back. But then she took off and got married to somebody else and was living up north. Then after a while Joe took off up there too and he was living with her but they got into some big kind of a fight and he went away out west.” He laughs as he has always done, silently, with a great private derision that seems to be heldinside him, shuddering through his chest and his shoulders.
“That’s the way they did,” says Irlma. “That’s the way they carried on.”
“So then Peggy went out west chasing after him,” Harry resumes, “and they ended up living together out there and it seems like he was beating up on her pretty bad so finally she got on the train and come back here. Beat her up so bad before she got on the train they thought they’d have to stop and put her in a hospital.”
“I’d like to see that,” Irlma says. “I’d like to see a man try that on me.”
“Yeah, well,” says Harry. “But she must’ve got some money or she made Bud pay her a share on the house because she bought herself the trailer. Maybe she thought she was going to travel. But Joe showed up again and they moved the trailer out the river and went and got married. Her other husband must’ve died.”
“Married according to what they say,” says Irlma.
“I don’t know,” says Harry. “They say he still thumps her good when he takes the notion.”
“Anybody tried that on me,” Irlma says, “I’d let him have it. I’d let him have it in the you-know-where.”
“Now, now,” says my father, in mock consternation.
“Her being part Indian might have something to do with it,” Harry says. “They say the Indians thump their women every once in a while and it makes them love ’em better.”
I feel obliged to say, “Oh, that’s just the way people talk about Indians,” and Irlma—immediately sniffing out some high-mindedness or superiority—says that what people say about the Indians has a lot of truth to it, never mind.
“Well, this conversation is way too stimulating for an old chap like me,” says my father. “I think I’ll go and lie down for a while upstairs.”
* * * *
“He’s not himself,” Irlma says, after we have listened to my father’s slow steps on the stairs. “He’s been feeling tough two or three days now.”
“Has he?” I say, guilty that I haven’t noticed. He has seemed to me the way he always seems now, when a visit brings Irlma and me together—just a bit shaky and apprehensive, as if he had to be on guard, as if it took some energy explaining and defending us, one to the other.
“He don’t feel right,” Irlma says. “I can tell.”
She turns to Harry, who has put on his outdoor jacket. “Just tell me something before you go out that door,” she says, getting between him and the door to block his way. “Tell me—how much string does it take to tie up a woman?”
Harry pretends to consider. “Big woman or little woman, would that be?”
“Any size woman at all.”
“Oh, I couldn’t tell you. Couldn’t say.”
“Two balls and six inches,” cries Irlma, and some far gurgles reach us, from Harry’s subterranean enjoyment. “Irlma, you’re a tartar.”
“I am so. I’m an old tartar. I am so.”
* * * *
I go along in the car with my father, to take the potatoes to Joe Thoms.
“You aren’t feeling well?”
“Not the very best.”
“How aren’t you feeling well?”
“I don’t know, can’t sleep. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve got the flu.”
“Are you going to call the doctor?”
“If I don’t get better I’ll call him. Call him now I’d just be wasting his time.”
Joe Thoms, a man about ten years older than I am, is alarmingly frail and shaky, with long stringy arms, an unshaven, ruined, handsome face, greyed-over eyes. I can’t see how he could manage to thump anybody. He gropes to meet us and take the sack of potatoes, urges us inside the smoky trailer.
“I mean to pay you for these here,” he says. “Just tell me what they’re worth?”
My father says, “Now, now.”
An enormous woman stands at the stove, stirring something in a pot.
My father says, “Peggy, this is my daughter. Smells good, whatever you got there.”
She doesn’t respond, and Joe Thoms says, “It’s just a rabbit we got give for a present. No use to talk to her, she’s got her deaf ear to you. She’s deaf and I’m blind. Isn’t that the devil? It’s just a rabbit but we don’t mind rabbit. Rabbit’s a clean feeder.”
I see now that the woman is not so enormous all over. The upper part of the arm next to us is out of proportion to the rest of her body, swollen like a puffball. The sleeve has been ripped out of her dress, leaving the armhole frayed, threads dangling, and the great swelling of flesh exposed and gleaming in the smoke and shadow of the trailer.
My father says, “It can be pretty good all right, rabbit.”
“Sorry not to offer you a shot,” Joe says, “but we don’t have it in the house. We don’t drink no more.”
“I’m not feeling up to it either, to tell you the truth.”
“Nothing in the house since we joined the tabernacle. Peggy and me both. You hear we joined up?”
“No, Joe. I didn’t hear about that.”
“We did. And it’s a comfort to us.”
“I realize now I spent a lot of my life in the wrong way. Peggy she realizes it too.”
My father says, “H’m-h’m.”
“I say to myself it’s no wonder the Lord struck me blind. He struck me blind but I see his purpose in it, I see the Lord’s purpose. We have not had a drop of liquor in the place since the first of July weekend. That was the last time. First of July.”
He sticks his face close to my father’s.
“You see the Lord’s purpose?”
“Oh Joe,” says my father with a sigh. “Joe, I think all that’s a lot of hogwash.”
I am surprised at this, because my father is usually a man of great diplomacy, of kind evasions. He has always spoken to me, almost warningly, about the need to fit in, not to rile people.
Joe Thoms is even more surprised than I am.
“You don’t mean to say that. You don’t mean it. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Yes I do.”
“Well you should read your Bible. You should see what all it says in the Bible.”
My father slaps his hands nervously or impatiently on hisknees.
“A person can agree or disagree with the Bible, Joe. The Bible is just a book like any other book.”
“It’s a sin to say that. The Lord wrote the Bible and He planned and created the worldand every one of us here.”
More hand slapping. “I don’t know about that, Joe. I don’t know. Come to planning the world, who says it has to been planned at all?”
“Well then who created it?”
“I don’t know the answer to that. And I don’t care.”
I see that my father’s face is not as usual, that it is not agreeable (that has been its most constant expression) and not ill-humored either. It is stubborn but not challenging, simply locked in to itself in an unyielding weariness. Something has shut down in him, ground to a halt.
* * * *
He drives himself to the hospital. I sit beside him with a washed-out can on my knees, ready to hold for him if he should have to pull off the road and be sick again. He has been up all night, vomiting often. In between times he sat at the kitchen table looking at the Historical Atlas. He who has rarely been out the province of Ontario knows about rivers in Asia and ancient boundaries in the Middle East. He knows where the deepest trench is in the ocean floor. He knows Alexander’s route and Napoleon’s and that the Khazars had their capital city where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea.
He said he had a pain across his shoulders, across his back. And what he called his old enemy, his gut pain.
About eight o’clock he went upstairs to try to sleep, and Irlma and I spent the morning talking and smoking in the kitchen, hoping that he was doing that.
Irlma recalled the effect she used to have, on men. It started early. A man tried to lure her off when she was watching a parade, only nine years old. And during the early years of her first marriage she found herself walking down a street in Toronto, looking for a place she’d heard about, that sold vacuum-cleaner parts. And a man, a perfect stranger, said to her, “Let me give you a piece of advice, young lady. Don’t walk around in the city with a smile like that on your face. People could take that up the wrong way.”
“I didn’t know how I was smiling. I wasn’t meaning any harm. I’d always’ve rather smiled than frowned. I was never so flabbergasted in my life. Don’t walk around the city with a smile like that on your face.” She leans back in her chair, opens her arms helplessly, laughs.
“Hot stuff,” she says. “And didn’t even know it.”
She tells me what my father has said to her. He has said that he wished that she’d always been his wife, and not my mother.
“That’s what he said. He said I was the one what would have suited him. Should’ve got me the first time.”
And that’s the truth, she says.
When my father came downstairs he said he felt better, he had slept a little and the pain was gone. Or at least he thought it was going. He could try to eat something. Irlma offered a sandwich, scrambled eggs, applesauce, a cup of tea. My father tried the cup of tea, and then he vomited and kept vomiting bile.
* * * *
But before he would leave for the hospital he had to take me out to the barn and show me where the hay was, how to put it down for the sheep. He and Irlma keep a couple of dozen sheep. I don’t know why they do this. I don’t think they make enough money on the sheep for the work that is created to be worthwhile. Perhaps it is just reassuring to have some animals around. They have Charlie, of course, but he is not exactly a farm animal. The sheep provide chores, farmwork still to be done. The kind of work they have known all their lives.
The sheep are still out to pasture but the grass they get has lost some of its nourishment—there have been a couple of frosts—so they must have the hay as well.
* * * *
In the car I sit beside him holding the can and we follow slowly that old, usual route. Victoria Street, Minnie Street, John Street, Catherine Street, to the hospital. The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed, for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the town hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.
Not for my father, perhaps. He has lived here and nowhere else. He has not escaped things by such use.
* * * *
Two slightly strange things happen when I take my father into the hospital. They ask me how old he is, and I say immediately, “Fifty-two,” which is the age of a man I am in love with. Then I laugh and apologize and run to the bed in the emergency ward where he is lying, and ask him if he is seventy-two or seventy-three. He looks at me as if the question bewilders him, too. He says, “Beg your pardon?” in a formal way, to gain time, then is able to tell me, seventy-two. He is trembling slightly all over, but his chin is trembling conspicuously, just the way my mother’s did. In the short time since he has entered the hospital some abdication has taken place. He knew it would, of course—that is why he held off coming. The nurse comes to take his blood pressure and he tries to roll up his shirtsleeve but is not able—she has to do it for him.
“You can go and sit in the room outside,” the nurse says to me. “It’s more comfortable there.”
The second strange thing:
It happens that Dr. Parakulam, my father’s own doctor—known locally as the Hin-doo doctor—is the doctor on call in the emergency ward. He arrives after a while and I hear my father making an effort to greet him in an affable way. I hear the curtains being pulled shut around the bed. After the examination Dr. Parakulam comes out and speaks to the nurse, who is now busy at the desk in the room where I am waiting.
“All right. Admit him. Upstairs.”
He sits down opposite me while the nurse gets on the phone. “No?” she says on the phone. “Well he wants him up there. No. Okay, I’ll tell him.”
“They say he’ll have to go in Three-C. No beds.”
“I don’t want him in chronic,” the doctor says—perhaps he speaks to her in a more authoritarian way, or in a more aggrieved tone, than a doctor would use, who had been brought up in this country. “I want him in intensive. His heart’s the problem and I want him upstairs.”
“Well maybe you should talk to them then,” she says. “Do you want to talk to them?”
She is a tall lean nurse, with some air of a middle-aged tomboy, cheerful and slangy. Her tone with him is less discreet, less correct and deferential, than the tone I would expect a nurse to take to a doctor. Maybe he is not a doctor who wins respect. Or maybe it is just that country and small-town women, who are generally so conservative in opinion, can often be bossy and unintimidated in behavior.
Dr. Parakulam picks up the phone.
“I do not want him in chronic. I want him upstairs. Well can’t you— Yes I know. But can’t you. This is a heart case. I know. But I am saying— Yes. Yes all right. All right. I see.”
He puts down the phone and says to the nurse, “Get him down to Three.” She takes the phone to arrange it.
“But you want him in intensive care,” I say, thinking that there must be some way in which my father’s needs can prevail.
“Yes. I want him there but there is not anything I can do about it.” For the first time the doctor looks directly at me and now it is I who am perhaps his enemy, and not the person on the phone. A short, brown, elegant man he is, with large glossy eyes.
“I did my best,” he says. “What more do you think I can do? What is a doctor? A doctor is not anything any more.”
I do not know who he thinks is to blame—the nurses, the hospital, the government—but I am not used to seeing doctors flare up like this and the last thing I want from him is a confession of helplessness. It seems a bad omen for my father.
“I am not blaming you,” I say.
“Well then. Do not blame me.”
The nurse has finished talking on the phone. She tells me I will have to go to admitting and fill out some forms. “You’ve got his card?” she says. And to the doctor, “They’re bringing in somebody that banged up on the Lucknow highway. Far as I can make out it’s not too bad.”
“All right. All right.”
“Just your lucky day.”
* * * *
My father has been put in a four-bed ward. One bed is empty. In the bed beside him, next to the window, there is an old man who has to lie flat on his back and receive oxygen but is able to make conversation. During the past two years, he says, he has had nine operations. He spent most of the past year in the veterans hospital, in the city.
“They took out everything they could take out and then they pumped me full of pills and sent me home to die.” He says this as if it is a witticism he has delivered successfully, many times.
He has a radio, which he has tuned to a rock station. Perhaps it is all he can get. Perhaps he likes it.
Across from my father is the bed of another old man, who has been removed from it and placed in a wheelchair. He has cropped white hair, still thick, the big head and frail body of a sickly child. He wears a short hospital gown and sits in the wheelchair with his legs apart, revealing a nest of dry brown nuts. There is a tray across the front of his chair, like the tray on a child’s high chair. He has been given a washcloth to play with. He rolls up the washcloth and pounds it three times with his fist. Then he unrolls it and rolls it up again, carefully, and pounds it again. He always pounds it three times, once at each end and once in the middle. The procedure continues and the timing does not vary.
“Dave Ellers,” my father says in a low voice.
“You know him?”
“Oh sure. Old railroad man.”
The old railroad man gives us a quick look, without breaking his routine. “Ha,” he says, warningly.
My father says, apparently without irony, “He’s gone a way downhill.”
“Well, you are the best-looking man in the room,” I say. “Also the best dressed.”
He does smile then, weakly and dutifully. They have let him wear the maroon and grey striped pajamas that Irlma took out of their package for him. A Christmas present.
“Does it feel to you like I’ve got a bit of a fever?” I touch his forehead, which is burning.
“Maybe a bit. They’ll give you something.” I lean close to whisper. “I think you’ve got a head start in the intellectual stakes, too.”
“What?” he says. “Oh.” He looks around. “I may not keep it” Even as he says this he gives me the wild helpless look I have learned today to interpret and I snatch the basin from the bedside stand and hold it for him.
As my father retches the man who has had nine operations turns up the volume on his radio.
Sitting on the ceiling
Looking upside down
Watching all the people
Goin roun and roun.
* * * *
I go home and eat supper with Irlma. I will go back to the hospital after supper. Irlma will go tomorrow. My father has said it would be better if she didn’t come tonight.
“Wait till they get me under control,” he said. “I don’t want her upset.”
“Charlie’s out somewhere,” Irlma says. “I can’t call him back. And if he won’t come to me he won’t come to nobody.”
Charlie is really Irlma’s dog. He is the dog she brought with her when she married my father. Part German shepherd, part collie, he is very old, smelly, and generally dispirited. Irlma is right—he doesn’t trust anybody but her. At intervals during our meal she gets up and calls from the kitchen door.
“Here, Charlie. Charlie, Charlie. Come on home.”
“Do you want me to go out and look for him?”
“Wouldn’t work. He’d just not pay no attention.”
It seems to me her voice is weaker and more discouraged when she calls Charlie than she allows it to be when she speaks to anybody else. She whistles for him, as strongly as she can, but her whistle, too, lacks vigor.
“I bet you I know where he’s gone,” she says. “Down to the river.”
I am thinking that, whatever she says, I will have to put on my father’s rubber boots and go looking for him. Then, at no noise that I can hear, she lifts her head and hurries to the door and calls, “Here, Charlie old boy. There he is. There he is. Come on in now. Come on, Charlie. There’s the old boy.”
“Where you been?” she says, bending and hugging him. “Where you been, you old bugger? I know. I know. You gone and wet yourself in the river.”
Charlie smells of rot and riverweeds. He stretches himself out on the mat between the couch and the television set.
“He’s got his bowel trouble again, that’s it. That’s why he went in the water. It burns him and burns so he goes in the water to relieve it. But he won’t get no real relief till he passes it. No he won’t,” she says, cuddling him in the towel she uses to wipe him. “Poor old fellow.”
She explains to me as she has done before that Charlie’s bowel trouble comes from going poking around the turkey barn and eating whatever he finds there.
“Old dead turkey stuff. With quills in it. He gets them into his system and he can’t pass them through the way a younger dog would. He can’t manage them. They get all bunched up in his bowels and they block all up in there and he can’t pass it out and he’s in agony. Just listen to him.”
Sure enough Charlie is grunting, groaning. He pushes himself to his feet. Hunh. Hunh.
“He’ll be all night like that, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe never get it out at all. That’s what I can’t help but be scared of. Take him to the vet’s I know they won’t help him. They’ll just tell me he’s too old, and they’ll want to put him down.”
“Nobody even goen to come to put me to bed,” says Mr. Ellers the railroad man. He is in bed, propped up. His voice is harsh and strong but he does not wake my father. My father’s eyelids tremble. His false teeth have been taken out so that his mouth sinks down at the corners; his lips have nearly disappeared. On his sleeping face there is a look of the most unalterable disappointment.
“Shut up that racket out there,” says Mr. Ellers to the silent hall. “Shut up or I’ll fine you a hunderd and eighty dollars.”
“Shut up yourself, you old loony,” says the man with the radio, and turns it on.
“A hunderd and eighty dollars.”
My father opens his eyes, tries to sit up, sinks back, and says to me in a tone of some urgency, “How can we tell that the end product is man?”
Get yo hans outa my pocket.
“Evolution,” my father says. “We might’ve got the wrong end of the stick about that. Some thing going on we don’t know the first thing about.”
I touch his head. Hot as ever.
“What do you think about it?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Because I don’t think—I don’t think about things like that. I did at one time, but not any more. Now I think about my work, and about men.”
His conversational energy is already running out. “May be coming—new Dark Ages.”
“Do you think so?”
“Irlma got the jump on you and me.”
His voice sounds fond to me, yet rueful. Then he faintly smiles. The word I think he says is . . . wonder.
* * * *
“Charlie come through,” Irlma greets me when I get home. A glow of relief and triumph has spread over her face.
“Oh. That’s good.”
“Just after you went to the hospital he got down to business. I’ll have you a cup of coffee in a minute.” She plugs in the kettle. Onthe table she has set out ham sandwiches, mustard pickles, cheese, biscuits, dark and light honey. It is just a couple of hours since we finished supper.
“He started grunting and pacing and worrying at the mat. He was just crazywith the misery and wasn’t nothing I could do. Then about quarter past seven I heard the change. I can tell by the sound he makes when he’s got it worked downinto a better position where he can make the effort. There’s some pie left, we never finished it, would you rather have the pie?”
“No thanks. This is fine.”
I pick up a ham sandwich.
“So I open the door and try to persuade him to get outside where he can pass it.”
The kettle is whistling. She pours water on my instant coffee.
“Wait a minute, I’ll get you some real cream— But too late. Right on the mat there he passed it. A hunk like that.” She shows me her fists bunched together. “And hard. Oh boy. You should of seen it. Like rock.
“And I was right,” she says. “It was chock-full of turkey quills.”
I stir the muddy coffee.
“And after that whoosh, out with the soft stuff. Bust the dam, you did.” She says this to Charlie, who has raised his head. “You went and stunk the place up something fierce, you did. But the most of it went on the mat so I took it outside and put the hose on it,” she said, turning back to me. “Then I took the soap and the scrub brush and then I wrenched it with the hose all over again. Then scrubbed up the floor too and sprayed with Lysol and left the door open. You can’t smell it in here now, can you?”
“I was sure good and happy to see him get relief. Poor old fellow. He’d be the age of ninety-four if he was human.”
* * * *
During the first visit I made to my father and Irlma, after I left my marriage and came east, I went to sleep in the room that used to be my parents’ bedroom. (My father and Irlma now sleep in the bedroom that used to be mine.) I dreamed that I had just entered this room where I was really sleeping, and I found my mother on her knees. She was painting the baseboard yellow. Don’t you know, I said, that Irlma is going to paint this room blue and white? Yes I do know, my mother said, but I thought if I hurried up and got it all done she would leave it alone, she wouldn’t go to the trouble of covering up fresh paint. But you will have to help me, she said. You will have to help me get it done because I have to do it while she’s asleep.
And that was exactly like her, in the old days—she would start something in a big burst of energy, then marshal everybody to help her, because of a sudden onslaught of fatigue and helplessness.
I’m dead, you know, she said in explanation. So I have to do this while she’s asleep.
* * * *
Irlma’s got the jump on you and me.
What did my father mean by that?
That she knows only the things which are useful to her, but she knows those things very well? That she could be depended upon to take what she needs, under almost any circumstances? Being a person who doesn’t question her wants, doesn’t question that she is right in whatever she feels or says or does.
In describing her to a friend I have said, “She’s a person who would take the boots off a dead body on the street.” And then of course I said, “What’s wrong with that?”
She’s a wonder.
* * * *
Something happened that I am ashamed of. When Irlma said what she did about my father having wished he’d been with her all the time, about his having preferred her to my mother, I said to her in a cool judicious tone—that educated tone which in itself has power to hurt—that I didn’t doubt that he had said that. (Nor do I. My father and I share a habit—not too praiseworthy—of often saying to people more or less what we think they’d like to hear.) I said that I didn’t doubt that he had said it but I did not think it had been tactful of her to tell me. Tactful, yes. That was the word I used.
She was amazed, that anybody could try to singe her so, when she was happy with herself, flowering. She said that if there was one thing she could not stand it was people who took her up wrong, people who were so touchy. And her eyes filled up with tears. But then my father came downstairs and she forgot her own grievance—at least temporarily, she forgot it—in her anxiety to care for him, to provide him with something he could eat.
In her anxiety? I could say, in her love. Her face utterly softened, pink, tender, suffused with love.
* * * *
I talk to Dr. Parakulam on the phone.
“Why do you think he is running this temperature?”
“He has an infection somewhere.” Obviously, is what he does not say.
“Is he on—well, I suppose he’s on antibiotics for that?”
“He is on everything.”
“Where do you think the infection—”
“I’m having tests done on him today. Blood tests. Another electrocardiogram.”
“Do you think it’s his heart?”
“Yes. I think basically it is. That is the main trouble. His heart.”
* * * *
On Monday afternoon, Irlma has gone to the hospital. I was going to take her—she does not drive—but Harry Crofton has shown up in his truck and she has decided to go with him, so that I can stay at home. Both she and my father are nervous about there being nobody on the place.
I go out to the barn. I put down a bale of hay and cut the twine around it and separate the hay and spread it.
When I come here I stay from Friday night until Sunday night, no longer, and now that I have stayed on into the next week,something about my life seems to have slipped out of control. I don’t feel so sure that it is just a visit. The buses that run from place to place no longer seem so surely to connect with me.
I am wearing open sandals, cheap water-buffalo sandals. This type of footwear is worn by a lot of women I know and it is seen to indicate a preference for country life, a belief in what is simple and natural. It is not practical when you are doing the sort of job I am doing now. Bits of hay and sheep pellets, which are like big black raisins, get squashed between my toes.
The sheep come crowding at me. Since they were sheared in the summer, their wool has grown back, but it is not yet very long. Right after the shearing they look from a distance surprisingly like goats, and they are not soft and heavy even yet. The big hip-bones stand out, the bunting foreheads. I talk to them rather self-consciously spreading the hay. I give them oats in the long trough.
People I know say that work like this is restorative and has a peculiar dignity, but I was born to it and feel it differently. Time and place can close in on me, it can so easily seem as if I have never got away, that I have stayed here my whole life. As if my life as an adult were some kind of dream that never took hold of me. I see myself not like Harry and Irlma who have to some extent flourished in this life, or like my father who has trimmed himself to it, but more like one of those misfits, captives—nearly useless, celibate, rusting—who should have left but didn’t, couldn’t, and are now unfit for any place. I think of a man who let his cows starve to death, one winter, after his mother died, not because he was frozen in grief but because he couldn’t be bothered going out to the barn to feed them, and there was nobody to tell him he had to. I can believe that, I can imagine it. I can see myself as a middle-aged daughter who did her duty, stayed at home, thinking that some day her chance would come, until she woke up and knew it wouldn’t. Now she reads all night and doesn’t answer her door, and comes out in a surly trance to spread hay for the sheep.
* * * *
What happens as I’m finishing with the sheep is that Irlma’s niece Connie drives into the barnyard. She has picked up her younger son from the high school and come to see how we are getting on.
Connie is a widow with two sons and a marginal farm a few miles away. She works as a nurse’s aide at the hospital. As well as being Irlma’s niece she is a second cousin of mine—it was through her, I think, that my father got better acquainted with Irlma. Her eyes are brown and sparkling, like Irlma’s, but they are more thoughtful, less demanding. Her body is capable, her skin dried, her arms hard-muscled, her dark hair cropped and greying. But there is a fitful charm in her voice and her expression. She fixes her lipstick and makes up her eyes before she goes to work and again when work is over; she surfaces full of what you might describe inadequately as high spirits or good humor or human kindness, from a life whose choices have not been plentiful, whose luck has not been in good supply.
She sends her son to shut the gate for me—I should have done that—to keep the sheep from straying into the lower field.
She says that she has been in to see my father at the hospital and that he seems a good deal better today, his fever is down and he ate up his dinner.
“You must be wanting to get back to your own life,” she says, as if that were the most natural thing in the world and exactly what she would be wanting herself, in my place. She can’t know anything about my life of sitting in a room writing and going out sometimes to meet a friend or a lover, but if she did know, she would probably say that I have a right to it.
“The boys and I can run up and do what we have to for Aunt Irlma. One of them can stay with her if she doesn’t like to be alone. We can manage for now, anyway. You can phone and see how things develop. You could come up again on the weekend. How about that?”
“Are you sure that would be all right?”
“I don’t think this is so dire,” she says. “The way it usually is, you have to go through quite a few scares before—you know, before it’s curtains. Usually, anyway.”
“I think that I can get here in a hurry if I have to. I can always rent a car.”
“I can get in to see him every day,” she says. “Him and I are friends, he’ll talk to me. I’ll be sure and let you know anything. Any change or anything.”
And that seems to be the way we’re going to leave it.
I remember something my father once said to me. She restored my faith in women.
That made me angry, though I didn’t show it. What faith was he talking about? Faith in women’s instinct, their natural instinct, something warm and active and straightforward. Something better than you could have, I thought he was saying, with all your smartness. All my life, that distrust of smartness. Nowtalking to Connie I could see more of what was meant. Though it wasn’t Connie he’d been talking about. It was Irlma.
* * * *
When I think about all this later, I will recognize that the very corner of the stable where I was standing, to spread the hay, and where the beginning of panic came on me, is the scene of the first clear memory of my life. There is in that corner a flight of steep wooden steps going up to the hayloft, and in the scene I remember I am sitting on the first or second step watching my father milk the black and white cow. This is how I know what year it was—the black and white cow died of pneumonia in the worst winter of my childhood, which was 1935. Such an expensive loss is not hard to remember.
And since the cow is still alive, and I am wearing warm clothes, a woolen coat and leggings, and at milking-time it is already dark—there is a lantern hanging on a nail beside the stall—it is probably the late fall or early winter. Maybe it was still 1934. Just before the brunt of the season hit us.
The lantern hangs on the nail. The black and white cow seems remarkably large and definitely marked, at least in comparison with the red cow, or muddy-reddish cow, her survivor, in the next stall. My father sits on the three-legged milking stool, in the cow’s shadow. I can recall the rhythm of the two streams of milk going into the pail, but not quite the sound. Something hard and light, like tiny hailstones? Outside the small area of the stable lit by the lantern are the mangers filled with shaggy hay, the water tank where a kitten of mine willdrown some years into the future; the cobwebbed windows, the large brutal tools—scythes and axes and rakes—hanging out of my reach. Outside of that, the dark of the country nights when few cars came down our road and there were no outdoor lights.
And the cold which even then must have been gathering, building into the cold of that extraordinary winter which killed all the chestnut trees, and many orchards.